9:40:09:Football vs. Tennessee

Kentucky quarterback Will Levis (7) runs the ball during the UK vs. Tennessee football game on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. Tennessee won 45-42. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

The best thing that could’ve happened to Kentucky’s (7-3) season was a trip to Nashville.

A 24-point second quarter was the difference in Kentucky’s 34-17 win over the Vanderbilt Commodores (2-8) Saturday night inside Vanderbilt Stadium. A sluggish second half allowed the Commodores to bring it closer, though the deficit was too much to overcome. The victory snapped a three-game losing streak that spanned nearly a month.

“It’s been a long several weeks, for sure,” Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said pot-game. “You can get beat up and beat down, mentally and physically in this league, and really appreciate our players bouncing back.” 

Kentucky quarterback Will Levis finished the game with 177 yards through the air, 75 of which went to Wan’Dale Robinson while running back Chis Rodriguez carried the ball 16 times for 114 yards and a touchdown. 

After forcing a punt on Vanderbilt’s opening drive, Kentucky marched down the field on a 10 play, 85-yard drive to break the ice for the Wildcats. Levis hooked up with his favorite target in Robinson three times for 33 yards, including the touchdown toss to set the tone for what was about to be a great offensive night for the Cats.

A couple chunk plays for the Commodores on the ensuing drive allowed Vanderbilt to sneak themselves into field goal range. Their kicker Joseph Bulovas would split the uprights from 48 yards after Kentucky came up with a stop on third and long. 

It took two plays for Kentucky’s next drive to creep near the red zone. Robinson made an adjustment to complete a 39-yard reception on the final play of the quarter—Levis continued his stellar start to the game with a 22-yard touchdown pass to tight end Izayah Cummings—the first of four scores for Kentucky in the second quarter.

Less than two minutes later, the Cats would pounce again, this time in the form of a 31-yard pick-six from sophomore defensive back Jalen Geiger. The scoring play was good for his first career interception after making the start in the secondary for Kentucky Saturday night.

The passing game was having a field day up to that point, which meant it was time for the running game to show out. Chris Rodriguez took a 30-yard-rush to the Commodore 10-yard-line; a personal foul on Vanderbilt placed the ball half the distance to the goal where Rodriguez would score on the next play for Kentucky’s fourth score of the game, which doubled for the sixth of the season for the veteran running back.

Matt Ruffolo would add onto Kentucky’s offensive onslaught with a 25-yard field goal before the Cats went into the locker room with a 28-point lead.

Kentucky out-gained the Commodores 278 yards to 105 in the first half, in part thanks to Levis’ 156 passing yards on 10-14 through the air. The only blemish on Kentucky’s game in the first quarter was the interception Levis threw on a Hail Mary prayer on the final play of the half.

Kentucky punted for the first time on the opening possession of the second half. Seals was benched for sophomore dual-threat quarterback Mike Wright to begin the third quarter as well.

Wright started the last three games for Vanderbilt due to a Seals injury, where he went 48-89 for 545 yards, throwing five touchdowns and four interceptions while amassing 59 carries for 286 yards. He finished the night 7-11 passing for 58 yards and two touchdowns as well as seven carries for 20 yards.

Wright completed a 12 play, 72-yard drive, capped by an eight-yard touchdown pass to Chris Pierce Jr.; a successful two-point conversion later and the Commodores had momentum. 

Kentucky put a nail in the coffin after bleeding out the final five minutes of the third quarter with a long, run-heavy drive that spanned over seven minutes with 14 plays for 61 yards that resulted in a 32-yard field goal from Ruffolo.

That didn’t mean Vanderbilt was ready to leave quietly, though. Wright led another drive into the Kentucky red zone, converting on fourth and goal for the second-straight drive and finding Amir Abdur-Rahman for the score. A failed two-point attempt kept the Kentucky lead at three possessions, 34-17.

Kentucky would kneel on their final drive after out-gaining Vanderbilt 413-266 yards, including 236 on the ground thanks to Rodriguez and JuTahn McClain, who took 10 carries for 69 yards on the night.

With the victory, Kentucky secured second-place in the SEC East for the first time since the conference split into two divisions in 1992. 

The Cats will be back at home for the final time against New Mexico State (1-9) next Saturday for Senior Day at noon ET on the SEC Network.

“Let’s go home and let’s get better,” Stoops said.